After conquering China, chef Jereme Leung is back in Singapore.
Yi by Jereme Leung showcases the chef’s decades of experience.
Chef-restaurateur Jereme Leung runs a F&B empire – which includes 14 restaurants, and his own line of sauces, wine, and kitchen equipment – out of China, but he would like you to know that he’s still as Singaporean as they come. “I went into the army in 1989... I’m about as Hokkien beng as anyone. I visit my mother in Singapore about twice a year, so I know the city very well.” His affinity for Singapore has led him to lend his name to a grand Chinese restaurant at the snazzy Raffles Hotel.
If the name Jereme Leung isn’t a familiar one, it’s because the 48 year-old has been based out of China for the past 17 years, making a name for himself as one of the few boundary-pushing chefs modernising Chinese cuisine.
In 2003 and at the age of 29, Leung uprooted and moved to Shanghai, leaving his job as the executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore’s Jiang Nan Chun. In Shanghai, he became part-owner and chef of Whampoa Club. There, he made his reputation with innovative interpretations of traditional Chinese dishes – a phenomenon practically unheard of 17 years ago.
His latest project, restaurant Yi by Jereme Leung, brings the chef back to Singapore at the newly-refurbished Raffles Hotel to offer the kinds of Chinese cuisine that “Singapore lacks”.
“If you think about it, most of the heritage cuisine we have in Singapore, like Teochew and Cantonese comes from China’s south,” explains Leung. To that end, Yi will be offering the food of northern or inland China, including Yunnan and Zhejiang.
Eastern accents, contemporary design and fine tableware are all part of the experience.
“MODERN” CHINESE CUISINE
Leung’s philosophy when it comes to contemporary Chinese cuisine feels almost like a Zen koan – to move forward by looking inward and amplifying the various qualities that are key to various dishes. “I don’t believe in all these foams and gels [elements often found in molecular gastronomy]. I think Chinese cuisine is strong enough to stand on its own… in fact, it’s too strong to take on all these ideas from elsewhere. It becomes muddled.”
“If you want something new – there are so many ingredients and dishes that you can ﬁnd in China’s many provinces that people don’t know about yet.”
At Yi, diners will ﬁnd ingredients of uncommon provenance, like rose petals from Dali, Yunnan, used in everything from ice cream to a ﬂoral-tinged hoisin sauce for roast duck.
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
01 BEST WHEN HOT
Soups are served lukewarm over a candle burner so that it heats up to the right temperature as you’re drinking it.
02 WRAP IT UP
Roast duck comes with ﬂour pancakes that are perched over a bowl of hot water so the pancakes remain warm and pliable.
03 A LA MINUTE
A signature, 100-Ring Cucumber, is dressed tableside so that water isn’t drawn out of the vegetable.
Getting served food at the right temperature is also a large part of the experience. “What should be served hot is served hot. We use clay pots and ceramics that are heated. We don’t dress the hot dishes … only with the cold ones do the chefs get creative with the plating.”
“Most dishes are shared, it’s about eating Chinese food the way it should be eaten,” explains Leung.
There might not be some kind of grand movement, but Leung’s many, smaller innovations each push Chinese cuisine forward. At Yi, this starts with the basics – steamed white rice. Instead of large-scale commercial rice cookers, the 100-seater restaurant boasts 12 sets of smaller machines (Xiaomi, if you’re curious) that gets wheeled to your table so that every order of rice can be served steaming-hot.
It might sound like unnecessary fuss, but temperature is key to the quality of Chinese dishes. Wok hei, that energetic, smoky-but-not-exactly quality key to Cantonese stir-fries is ﬂeeting; while steamed ﬁsh – velvety and tender while hot – ﬁrms up as it cools.
KNIFE SKILLS REQUIRED
Hundred-Ring Cucumber & Poached Sea Whelk with Soy Sauce Vinaigrette.
THE MARKETING PROBLEM
It is clear that internationally, Chinese cuisine doesn’t enjoy the same prestige as European ﬁne dining. The dearth of Chinese restaurants on international lists like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Michelin Guide; as well as on widely-viewed media like Chef’s Table means that understanding of Chinese cuisine remains woefully shallow.
Leung explains that “Chinese food has a problem with marketing”, citing examples of two of the most widely-discussed culinary movements in modern times: “If you think about it, tofu is the ﬁrst-ever form of molecular gastronomy. You want to talk about fermentation – like they do at Noma? Well, we have fu ru (fermented tofu soaked in brine), we have preserved mustard greens. These are all things we have been doing for thousands of years. People rarely talk about this.”
Then there’s the cultural part of it – in a society where humility and modesty are considered virtues, many Chinese chefs prefer to remain in the background. Up until a couple of years back, you’d be hard-pressed to ﬁnd one who would be willing to speak at length about their process, much less appear in front of the camera.
Times are changing though. As with any cultural force – like art or music – food proliferates with economic power, and China is no exception. Food programmes centred on Chinese cuisine, like A Bite of China and Flavourful Origins have earned critical acclaim. Leung himself is no stranger to television appearances, having been a judge on China’s televised cooking competitions like MasterChef.
At Yi, there’s a “swan shaped durian pastry” in the desserts section of the menu. The molten durian ﬁlling is serviceable; but its deep-fried, lard-based pastry comes in layers delicate and multiplicitous enough to rival the best croissant. Get as many people as possible to try that - and perhaps that’s all the marketing you need.